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Hands of the King: 37. Mated
Minas Tirith, 2 March, 2977 T.A.
This time, it was not a dream. Denethor lay as still as he could, fearing to wake Finduilas. Here. You're here. After forever wishing for her, she lay next to him, hair strewn across her shoulders and face, breath soft until a final, tiny wheeze when she exhaled, her body spooned against his own in his meager bed. A purring sound somewhere near the headboard let him know that the cat had joined them. It was early still, but past dawn, for the room was light.
He knew himself possessed. I am thine. All his flight had been in vain. It always had been. From the moment she had declared him to be her love, this had to be. There was no choice. You spoke my fate and so it is. I am thy love. No other wouldst thou have, none other could I be. Denethor shivered at the memory of how she claimed him, how she had allowed him his height of pride thinking himself the master of their mating. Then she called and his soul obeyed; he was bare before her. She left no part of him unseen or untouched and she did not return what he surrendered.
Finduilas stirred, disturbed by his trembling. Denethor willed himself to be still, but was confounded by his cock, which chose to rouse itself and cheerfully salute its queen. She began to wake, then froze as she realized where she was. He edged away to give her more room. Finduilas turned to look at him. Denethor held his breath, thrilled at the sight of her face, dreading what she would think of him. At last she smiled and touched his face.
'Friend, love,' she whispered before kissing him. For a moment, he thought he would weep again for the sheer joy of being allowed to touch her so. They kissed, bodies fitted to each other like the stone of the City walls, hands delicately exploring the textures and planes of their private citadel. His doubts he left outside. Finduilas pulled on him, rolling back to lie flat on the bed, inviting him to rest on top of her. As Denethor tried to position himself over her, Finduilas began to cough. He rolled away while she hung over the edge of the bed, hacking and gasping, working something up from deep in her chest.
Denethor started to rub her back to ease the coughing, but stopped at the sight of what his hands had done to her. After too long, Finduilas could draw a full breath again. She rolled back on the bed, eyes closed, taking careful breaths. Her face was blotchy from the force of the coughing and she wheezed with each breath in and out. Denethor looked her over while she had her eyes shut, increasingly alarmed at what he saw. There were several bruises on her upper arms. Along her shoulders were more dark imprints, left by his grip on her in the wildest moments of their mating. Along with his hands' dark marks on her shoulders and arms, there were similar blemishes left by his mouth and teeth on her neck, chest, even the top curves of her breasts. The bedding had slipped off during the kissing and coughing, exposing all besides their calves, allowing a sharp scent to escape the sheets. A red-brown film clung to her inner thighs, darker streaks of it in the folds of her legs and the curls of hair above her furrow. The sheet beneath them bore a dark stain.
You think only of yourself, when you have done her harm. Denethor stroked Finduilas's face. She opened her eyes, smiling, and took his hand.
She had to clear her throat before speaking. 'I am all right.'
'That was worse than usual.'
'I did not rest as much last night as usual,' Finduilas replied with an impish grin, then glanced away, blushing. 'Husband.'
He touched her face to make her look at him again. 'Yes, husband. And thou art wife.' He was rewarded with a smile and a kiss. 'It was thy wish?'
'It has always been my wish, friend.' She kissed him again, longer. 'It is my wish now.'
Almost Denethor allowed himself to be governed by his lust rather than his concern for Finduilas. It was so tempting to open his mouth to hers, let his fingers slip behind her, press himself down upon her… Reluctantly, he broke away and sat up. 'It is my wish that you have some time to rest.'
'I have rested! I just woke!' Finduilas protested, also sitting up, face reddening in indignation. 'That cough was nothing. I am not a child, to be told what to do! This is not… '
Denethor stopped any further argument with a kiss. She leaned into him, her mouth asking for a deeper kiss which he gave her. When they broke to breathe, he cupped her face in his hand. 'Wilt thou hear my counsel, wife?' Finduilas nodded. 'No, you are no child, my love, nor am I a beast to be ordered, as you yourself said when I would have done this before. I am glad for this, but also dismayed.' That was true. The sense of being shorn of something had faded since her waking, but it slunk about, waiting for his attention. 'Look at you. You are bruised across your shoulders and bosom, and your thighs are blood-stained.' She looked ready to protest, so Denethor kissed her again lightly. 'Do not ask me to do something that would pain you when there is no need, Alquallë. I could not bear that.'
Finduilas considered his words, then sighed, 'You are right. It is just that I am greedy for you.' She touched his chest, running her fingers over it and making him shiver.
'It is for you to say, always, but for now allow me to say that it shall not be.' She looked doubtful, which made Denethor sigh in an exaggerated manner. 'If nothing else, I need food and drink to regain some strength.'
This made her laugh. 'Why, yes, my lord husband,' Finduilas said with a smirk, 'it was a rather vigorous encounter.' Blushing, she dropped her eyes. 'Were you… satisfied? I please you?'
The kiss was very thorough. When it ended, they were both panting. 'Oh, yes.' Denethor took her under the chin, made her look at him. 'You are pleased, too?' She nodded. 'Then let us be content for the moment.'
'And find some nourishment for you?' she innocently asked.
'Yes. Now, off with you!'
'Where is my nightdress?'
'You tossed it over there.'
With a giggle, Finduilas kissed him quickly before scooting from the bed to collect the garment. The sight of her standing naked was a mixed pleasure; her lithe beauty roused him while the marks of their mating made him cringe. She slipped the gown over her head, returned for a final kiss, then disappeared beyond the screen. Denethor remained in bed until he heard the door to her room open and close. Standing made him wince. His lower back ached, as did his thighs. When he reached to pour water from the ewer into the washbasin, Denethor added his shoulders to the list. He looked at his crotch and realized he needed to go to the baths for a thorough washing. The blood and other leavings were awkward to rinse off and left the water clouded. He had pulled on clothes when he heard Finduilas's door open again. In a moment, she was there. Shooing the cat away, she stripped the sheet off the bed, folding it neatly. 'Mine,' was all the explanation she offered before returning to her room.
Denethor was glad for the cold water of the showers to help him tame the more unruly parts of his anatomy. He skipped the warm soaking tubs afterwards, though it was probably what his back needed. As he scrubbed himself clean, he kept trying to figure out what was wrong. You have made love to your wife and pleased her in the doing. You are but properly concerned that you do not cause her needless discomfort while she becomes used to being a wife. The argument did not convince. It was not simply seeing blood or marks – Finduilas herself did not appear concerned by them – but a sense that something had been left undone, though Denethor could not figure out what.
Walking back across the circle, he remembered that there was to be a meeting with the guildhall masters in the Tower that morning. He wished he did not have to attend so that he could remain with Finduilas until he figured out what was wrong. No, best not to stay near temptation. Perhaps there would be something in the archives that would explain this sense. Finduilas had not returned from the women's baths when he got back, nor did she appear before it was time to go attend the meeting in the Tower. Denethor waited for her as long as he dared, not wanting to go without seeing her and reassuring himself that all was still well with her. When he heard the bells chime, he knew he had to leave. With a last glance into her study to be sure he had not missed her, Denethor left by the Wall Door.
The day was clear and brisk, with a hint of green in the air that presaged the new growth of spring. The Ephel Dúath were sharply etched against the horizon, the ruins of Osgiliath a sprawl of white upon the pale green fields of the Pelennor and the deeper green woods of Ithilien, Anduin sparkling silver as she made her way through them to the Sea. Denethor lingered a few minutes near the wall looking at this. It was beautiful, the dread of the east making it all the more precious. Reluctantly, he turned away and followed the upper walk towards the Tower.
'Denethor!' Brandir's voice echoed in the stone courtyard. He was emerging from the ramp, probably arriving for the guildhall meeting. 'Wait for me!' Brandir hurried up the stairs and along the walkway. 'What good luck!' he said happily when he was close enough to speak instead of shout, 'I hoped I would have a few minutes to talk to you before meeting the Steward. There is to be a party for tuilérë, and Maiaberiel says she will not allow you to say no. It has been…' As he had upon Seabird, Brandir stood before him, frozen still and speechless. Unlike then, the look on Brandir's face was joyful, not full of awe. After a few heartbeats, he let out a whoop and pulled Denethor into an embrace, laughing, then began dancing the two of them in a circle.
'What are you doing! Brandir, have you lost your wits?' Denethor demanded, unable to wrest himself from his brother-in-law's firm grip.
'She did it! She did it!' was Brandir's reply. Denethor made him stand still, though he still could not be rid of Brandir's grasp. The man was grinning from ear to ear, and Denethor had a sinking feeling that somehow Brandir knew exactly what had transpired last night.
'Not so loud!' he admonished, pulling them away from the edge of the walkway where they might be seen from below. He did not need arriving guildmasters to see Brandir capering about. 'Speak plainly, what is the matter?'
'Our queen has won your heart!' Brandir crowed.
Denethor cast about, dismayed that his surrender might be written upon him for others to see. 'What nonsense are you spouting now, Brandir? This cannot be news, that I love my wife.'
Brandir's cheer faded, replaced with an exasperated expression. 'That's not what I mean, and you know it. You admitted last spring that you were fond of the girl, and I saw enough in Dol Amroth to be certain there was true affection between you. This is different.' The hair rose on the back of Denethor's neck. He knows. 'I have watched you since the wedding, waiting for this, to see if someone of your house is capable of love.' Brandir's face softened, and he laid a hand on Denethor's shoulder. 'You are a cold man, Denethor, cold and fearsome, but all that you do is done with your full heart. I knew if you let yourself love, it would be thus.' He smiled and gave Denethor a small shake. 'It is, isn't it? I am right.'
'Yes.' Again Brandir laughed and embraced him. There was no point in denying what the man saw, but Denethor was curious how his brother-in-law perceived this change. 'How do you know, Brandir?'
Brandir shrugged. 'I just do. It is there to see.' The man's grey eyes twinkled and he pulled the edge of Denethor's collar aside. 'The love bite on your neck as large as a plum also speaks to it.' He grinned as Denethor batted his hands away and fastened the shirt collar.
'Can anyone see this?' Denethor demanded.
'The bite? They will if you leave your collar open,' Brandir teased. Looping his arm through Denethor's, he made them continue their walk towards the Tower. 'Only a few will see this in you. When we are at the meeting, look with your heart and try to see the people there. I think you will understand.'
They arrived at the meeting on the Steward's heels, earning a glare from Ecthelion. Borondir was already present, as was Hathol. The guildmasters were polite as they presented their complaints and claims, artfully understating the success of their guilds to avoid taxation while extolling the guilds' virtues to gain patronage. Borondir was equally polite as he demolished their arguments. The goldsmiths were represented by Primrose's husband, Urgon, and he was more forthright than most of the other masters. They performed this dance twice a year. This time the only new element was a protest, very delicately worded, conveying the dismay of the masters that the Quartermaster-General was favoring some widows within the guilds more than other craftsmen, even going so far as to pay them a small bounty when their goods were not discernibly different than those produced by others. The protest was withdrawn when it was made known that this was done at the behest of the Lady.
Denethor paid only half a mind to the meeting, though he usually was very keen on understanding the trade goods produced in the City. He tried to do as Brandir had told him and see these familiar faces with fresh eyes. He could not always do so, but by the end of the second hour, Denethor began to perceive something about the people sitting there. It was most apparent in Brandir; it was as though the man had a window over his heart and his devotion to Maiaberiel could be seen through it. A few of the others – Hathol, Urgon, the guildmistress of the weavers – had this about them as well. Their love was present, but muted compared to Brandir. For the rest, there was nothing, their hearts shuttered from him. It fascinated him and he wished he could see himself to compare. If I found a mirror, could I see what Brandir sees? It is not possible that this is something known only to myself and Brandir. As soon as he thought this, Denethor remembered reading Silmarien's commentaries on marriage in The Discourses. She spoke of this. He did not recall her exact words, but that was simply a matter of rereading the passages. Reassured that there would be an explanation, Denethor spent the rest of the meeting practicing looking at people.
The meeting concluded with its usual mix of concessions from each party in return for desired gains. Denethor allowed Borondir and Brandir to leave with the guildmasters, remaining with the Steward. Ecthelion looked at him questioningly.
'My Lord Steward, if it pleases you, I have a matter to discuss.'
'Will it take long?'
'A few minutes only, sir.' Denethor had to concentrate on keeping his face impassive. He did not think he could have held his sire in greater contempt, but it grew as he looked on the man and saw nothing. The Steward brusquely nodded. 'The Lady's guardsmen are little used in the City. I would like to place some of them in outer garrisons.'
Ecthelion considered this. 'How many and how often?'
'Half at any given time. They should be moved every few months.'
'Why so often?'
'They are very young, and the report is that the Dol Amroth portion is barely trained. I don't want any large number of them in a single place, and it will do well for them to learn different locations quickly.'
'How will you divide them?'
'Evenly to start. Fifty each to the north, east and south.'
'Hmm.' The tone of his voice said the Steward took the request seriously. Ecthelion walked towards the window, pondering. 'Why not send them all?'
'Leaving some here provides more flexibility in using fully trained and seasoned men from the first circle garrison as needed.' Denethor did not wish to draw attention to the other uses Finduilas had for her soldiers, lest the Steward speak of it to Beruthiel.
'Have you spoken to the Captain-General of this yet?'
'No. I only thought of it in the last few days and wished to present it to you first.'
'See if he agrees. I will consider it also.'
Denethor bowed and left. Brandir was waiting for him in the hall and motioned for Denethor to accompany him to the upper walk. They strolled in silence to the wall and then past nearly to the end of the promontory where they would not be heard.
'Well?' Brandir prompted.
'I saw something in you, Hathol, Urgon, and Fern.'
'Then you see truly. You will see more as you become used to it.'
'But, why now? And what am I seeing?' There would be a better answer from Silmarien, of course, but Denethor wanted to know how Brandir understood this thing.
Brandir shrugged. 'I am not certain. If you love truly, you will see others who also love like this. Sometimes, they will see you, too. I began seeing this after I lay with Maiaberiel. Others, it takes longer. Boromir, he was the first to see the change in me, and he said it was more than a year after his marriage before he was changed. That is why I kept hoping for you.' Suddenly, Brandir's face changed from cheerful to fierce. 'I had to hope, for all of us.'
'I don't understand you.'
Brandir turned half away from Denethor and stared off across the Pelennor. 'In some ways, brother,' he began, 'you are more a fool than I am. What did you see when you looked at Ecthelion?'
'Nothing. With all the beds he has visited, there is nothing. You don't know how sad I have been watching you for years, knowing how like him you are.' Brandir shot him a sharp glare. 'You will never visit a whore again, Denethor. You won't want to, which is good. The realm does not need any more uncertainty.' Returning his gaze to the horizon, Brandir spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, 'I have waited for months, fearing I would not see this day and that you would tire of Finduilas as Ecthelion did of Emeldir. With each day that passed, I wondered what harm I had done by not objecting to this match. It was a terrible choice, for I could not imagine another who could move your heart, yet I dreaded what would happen to her if even her kindness was not enough.' Brandir smiled, but did not leave off his study of the distance. 'So I am doubly happy, for you and for Finduilas. You won't want to love anyone else. You can't love anyone else, now. You aren't like the rest of your house.' With a look in his eyes that belied his bright smile, Brandir said, 'You're like me,' then walked swiftly away.
Denethor waited until Brandir had descended the stair before returning to the Stewards House, letting himself in through the Wall Door. He walked to Finduilas's study, tapped on the door and let himself in.
'Denethor!' Finduilas exclaimed, hurrying over. He said nothing, pulling her into a tight embrace, hiding his face in her hair. I can't see you. Brandir's words would not leave him be. You love me. You must love me. Why can't I see you? Finduilas did not try to pull away as she often did, but circled his waist with her arms and rubbed his back. As the edge of his fear left, he relaxed his hold on her. She remained close to him. 'What is it, friend? Was there contestation at the meeting?'
'No. You had not returned before I had to leave and I was worried.' It was not exactly the truth, but it would suffice.
Finduilas looked up at him, contrite. 'Forgive me. It took me longer than usual at the baths.' She led him to a seat near the hearth and fetched them both wine.
He looked at the ashes in the hearth, fearing to look and not see. 'Why did it take you so long?'
'I had a good deal of washing to do and then I nearly fell asleep in the hot tub,' she confessed. Denethor risked a glance at her, trying to see her with a normal gaze. It mostly worked. Boromir took more than a year. Be patient. Finduilas swirled her wine, face getting pink. 'You were right this morning, friend, to curb my eagerness. As the day has worn on, I find that I am rather… sore.'
'I can well believe that.'
'Just soreness,' she hastily reassured him, 'nothing more. It will pass.'
'I think it best that we should wait until the bruises on your shoulders are gone. When they are gone, all will be healed for certain.'
'But that will be days, nay, more than a week!' she objected.
'So it shall.' He looked at her steadily until she sighed and bowed her head in acquiescence. That will give me time to understand why you are hidden from me.
The house understood that something had changed between the two of them. Beregar stayed more often in the kitchen or his quarters, waiting to be called, abandoning his usual haunt of a chair in the hallway of the second floor. Aeluin walked about smiling to herself and often could be heard singing love songs downstairs. The rest of the servants and the guardsmen were full of cheer, but careful to depart swiftly when their tasks were complete. The exception to the general good humor was Wren. She never failed to give Denethor a resentful look when they passed in the hall or when he came to Finduilas's study.
Mornings were taken up with Tower business; each breakfast brought new messenger pouches filled with reports from all corners of the kingdom outlining winter damage, the state of food and fuel stores as they entered spring, plans for planting, accounts of some dangerous beasts, lank from winter privation, coming down from the mountains to attack herds, and a few cases of pirate raids upon the falas, though no sign of Corsairs. Denethor was intrigued to see those reports written up by Imrahil instead of the Prince.
When he was not reading reports, he was meeting about them or writing more of his own. Denethor sent a message to Thorongil about the guardsmen, as the Steward asked, and was surprised as days went by with no answer. Most days he met with the Steward. There was less contest between them than usual; they found each other's counsel wise and reasonable in most part. Where they disagreed, Denethor held his tongue.
Though he had a set of The Discourses of his own, Denethor was wary of Finduilas seeing him reading them. There were other books and scrolls he knew he would wish to consult, as well, and all was best done in his room at the archives. She would accompany him there, so she was close, but would spend her time visiting with the archivists and allowing Aiavalë to order her about, which prevented her from watching him at work. Denethor was always careful to have a considerable stack of things on his desk so the true object of his interest did not attract attention.
What he learned allowed him to remain calm in the face of her opacity. Silmarien was, as Denethor had suspected, someone with answers, though they were not entirely reassuring. Her writings led him to investigate yet older writings on the relationship between hröa and fëa, including the Athrabeth, the Tale of Adanel, and an incomplete copy of the Laws and Customs Among the Eldar, the only one preserved from the library of Armenelos. The readings gave him dreams – or were they memories? – of his speech with the mariner, all forgotten upon waking, save for a sense of dread and loss.
"It was the lack of bonds between husband and wife that finally convinced the Eldar the Edain were beings wholly different than themselves, and not merely Elves sickened by Shadow," Silmarien asserted in the Eighth Discourse, On Souls. "The mystery was how hröar could be joined, yet not by the will of the fëa." This one fact made some Elves believe that Men were not true beings, but simply animals who spoke, or perhaps another kind of Orc, on its way to utter corruption by the Great Enemy. A few Elves thought this showed the origin of Orcs. In any event, they believed Men incapable of such bonds. "But they were misled, for they could not imagine a joining of hröar that preceded the joining having been mutually willed by the fëa, and this Men may do." Silmarien thought the difference between the modes of bonding to be in keeping with the proper natures of Elves and Men, calling upon the Athrabeth to support her reason: "If Men are made to be visitors of short passage, then it is right that they shall be loathe to bind themselves to someone else and be sundered from that beloved; two wills are deprived of their choice and much grief must follow."
Men could give their forms in marriage, yet withhold their full will, something the Elves simply could not do. While this might lessen their grief at the inevitable passing of their mate, it also left open the door for corruption by the Enemy, for Men were tempted very easily into bestial ways, abusing this grace by sharing their bodies promiscuously. "While Men may not be compelled to will their marriage in the manner of the Eldar, holding forever steadfast to a single choice, still they are capable of it and it is their proper nature," Silmarien explained, "In marital congress are their wills given unity with their forms. It is known among the Dúnedain for some to will thusly from the start or all at once, and those who do are changed and never repent of their choice. Most who will, however, come slowly to this state; their willing is weaker and may sometimes be broken or relinquished. Even so, most Dúnedain will know this joy. To be pitied are those who, like lesser Men, cannot or will not fulfill their natures. They are corrupt." Silmarien was certain that whatever lay beyond the veil of knowledge about the fate of men, when their fëar could be always together, then they would know marriage even as the Elves enjoyed it within Aman.
Denethor contemplated this passage for most of an afternoon. It appeared that what overtook him and Brandir was unusual, but known, and Finduilas's state was more common. He found again the passage about a bond that could preexist a marriage, understanding it better now, knowing that it was of another kind than this. It was as a wishful thought compared to a declared pledge. But our bond was more than that. How else could she have seen me? Perhaps it has naught to do with love, and only with fate. It saddened him to think that her will to bind herself to him was less than his own for her, though Silmarien also wrote that women's willing was stronger than men's when achieved. "A woman may resist more powerfully than any man, and when she chooses, it is rarely to be undone. Men are more fickle creatures." The last wisdom of the Discourses gave him the most hope. Once a marriage was made, it took great willfulness on the part of one spouse to refuse the claims of the other, and very few did so.
This set Denethor on his next task – to be a worthy lover. He was convinced that his coarse touches were part of Finduilas's resistance to committing her will as completely as her form. His ignorance of how to please her was shameful. All of a year I wasted, not caring that I knew nothing of how to be a husband. That stops now. This meant reading things that were very far from philosophy. Denethor perused a number of works, finding most to be crude and obscene. They were obviously well read, given their worn and dog-eared condition. One work that was extremely useful was a book used for training midwives. It had several detailed illustrations showing how a woman's womb sat in her body when empty and when with child, each from different perspectives. There were also drawing of male generative organs in various states. The engineer in him appreciated how cleverly the parts were meant to fit together.
Denethor best liked a book written in the time of Narmacil I by a man named Ciryon who lived in Osgiliath, but who had lands in Ithilien. It was a book of advice to husbands. There were the usual admonishments to be not drunkard nor wastrel, to be civil in speech at all times, and not to treat one's wife commonly. Ciryon appeared to have been familiar with The Discourses, for he spoke about strengthening the pledge to each other as the greatest task and the most noble part of wedded life. "The marital bed is a hallow and every act upon it must reverence the one with whom you share it. Give with your whole heart, always." He also wrote bluntly about ways to pleasure a wife that had none of the lasciviousness of other works, but left little to the imagination. Though it left Denethor's face burning, he read it until he knew he would remember it.
Finduilas hid her unhappiness over his decision to wait as well as she could. For the first few days, Denethor watched her carefully and noted when she grimaced or moved cautiously. These signs of discomfort disappeared by the fourth day, much to his relief. His own aches departed about the same time. She kept her promise not to ask anything of him, but presented a bare shoulder to him each day for inspection. The marks faded slowly. He was sure to kiss each one gently in apology, ending by kissing her lips.
Ciryon approved of kissing and advised that it was rarely possible to kiss one's wife too much, though one should not do so in public or before others, lest she be demeaned. Denethor was amazed at how many ways there were to kiss, and diligently applied himself to learning all he could. Their morning kisses were light and sweet. He enjoyed waiting on her, for each time he handed over a cup of tea, a slice of bread, a spoon of preserves, Denethor would be rewarded with a kiss. Finduilas ended their breakfasts each day combing and braiding his hair, bestowing a variety of interesting kisses on his ears and neck as she did so.
In the evenings, their kisses were more involved. At first, they sat, Finduilas in his lap, and they would kiss slowly and deeply while their hands explored each other. The first day, Denethor had to be careful touching her breasts for they were still tender from his earlier attentions. On the fifth evening, as he stood at the sideboard to pour some wine, Finduilas stood behind him and began kissing his neck. He turned to embrace her and she pressed firmly into him, catching him between her and the sideboard. He could not help either his swift erection or his growl of desire. From the pleased look on her face, that was exactly the reaction she had hoped for. Denethor knew Finduilas was trying to seduce him. It was difficult not to give in, to let her unbutton his shirt, to slide a hand along her leg under her skirt, to lead her to his bed and surrender his soul again, but she had promised and they were agreed, so Denethor would not relent. He braced himself against the sideboard and took hold of her hips, forcing her to stand away from him. She smiled and tried to undo the top button on his shirt. He gave her a small shake.
'Oh, no you don't.'
'No.' She glared. 'You promised, Alquallë.'
The glare turned to sadness and she hung her head. 'But I love you so,' she whispered. 'I can't help it, friend. I just want to touch you.' Denethor took her hands in his own and kissed each finger, then guided one hand to his face and the other to his waist. His own hands he returned to her hips, encouraging her to press hard against him. Finduilas behaved herself, letting her hands travel over him, but not trying to undo his clothes. Denethor did not allow his own hands to leave her hips, using only his lips to touch the rest of her. The torment was exquisite, and, if he kept his eyes closed, Denethor could almost forget what was not there.
This they did every night afterwards while they waited for the marks to leave. When he felt his own resolve wavering, he would stop and bid her good night, then go to his room. With each night, it became more difficult as he learned more and wanted to act on his knowledge. His loins ached and it took longer for him to become limp. By the ninth night, Denethor left his bed and walked to her door, intending to ask Finduilas to allow him in. He stopped with his hand raised to knock. You said it was her room. Would you pound on that door and demand to be let in? How should she refuse you? What excuses did Ecthelion make to enter his wife's room? She waits, strong enough to be obedient. Can you not follow your own law?
Denethor returned to the alcove and dressed warmly. He left the house as quietly as he could using the Wall Door, intending to walk off his desire. The night sky was clear and cold; starlight and moonlight cast their own radiance and were reflected by the walls, illuminating the City in a soft, pearly glow. So bright was it that he could make out a ghostly Osgiliath across the Pelennor. He walked to the far seat upon the promontory and settled there, letting the chill of the stone seep into his body and quell his ardor.
It might have been his imagination, but Denethor thought he saw a light in the far mountains where Minas Morgul sat. Once, he and a band of rangers had dared to creep up the poisoned vale near dusk and he had glimpsed the haunted city from afar. There was a sickly glow to it and the sight had left them ill. He cast his gaze down the mountain, looking left and right, admiring the walls of Minas Tirith glistening in the night. You, too, you are mated, he thought, but your mate has been taken from you, and ran a hand along the wall.
The stone spoke to him.
Denethor rose from the bench, placing both hands upon the stone. He did not know he had missed her voice until the City spoke, just as Pelargir, Osgiliath, and Angrenost had done. Minas Tirith mourned, many times widowed, many times bereft, yet she also sang; a gentle lullaby to the children nestled at her breast, so soft, a faint croon, all that remained of oaths and promises and pasts. In the song was the story of all her mates who were no longer, some wrested from her, some who had turned their backs, and the rest who were simply gone. He understood her sorrow, finally, hearing her sadness as he now could see Brandir's deep grief. So many pairings rent asunder or never to be joined. Changing her name did not change the love for what was lost. Anor longed for Ithil.
Denethor wandered from the promontory to where the white stone delved more deeply into the mountain. The song was stronger and more tales could be teased out. So many things had she seen from her perch above the plain, watching armies and Anduin drift past as ages turned. He climbed over the Citadel wall and down her face. There was a joyful strand of the song here, newly written: The Lady is returned. The gloomy house was rousing from a deep sleep, the shuttered windows opened, and the solemn streets rang with voices filled with cheer. The City cast aside her widow's weeds. The Lady is returned. Denethor heard whispers in the stone's lullaby, of flowers and feathers, of new things taking root, abating the sorrow of the song. He walked the sixth circle and climbed to the top of its wall. A hope of a homecoming was there in the stone, just a hint. If the Lady had returned, then mayhap the King would as well?
Starlight became brighter as the night progressed, turning the white walls into opal. Denethor allowed the song to seep into him, drunk upon it. Pelargir's ancient tales, Osgiliath's cries against its desecration, they were nothing compared to the sorrow of the White City. He wept as he touched her walls and climbed her towers, followed her many stone ways twisting about. When he came to a watchtower upon the fifth circle wall, he stared across the plain, seeking Osgiliath. It hunkered upon the river, a ghost that would not be ousted. The City sighed at the passing of the kings as she gazed upon the ruins, mourning the first bereavement, when the kings who sat side by side parted, leaving the western seat forever empty. No wonder Osgiliath fails. It is wounded at its core, its sundered seat lying at its root below the river. The breaking of that bond, dividing brother from brother, that was Isildur's doing. Why did he not leave Elendur to sit beside Meneldil, even as he himself had paired with Anárion? So much division followed on its heels – the partition of Arnor, the Kin-strife of Gondor, the kings slaying each other as assiduously as the Enemy would do. Denethor rested his forehead against the cold stone, silently joining the Queen's lament at the fratricide.
When the cold made him shudder, he moved again. Over rooftops, down alleys, up towers, on walls, stairs, bridges, tunnels, wherever the song of the white stone led him, Denethor followed. He saw no one else. The City was deserted and there was only himself left to listen to her. The City reached deeply into the rock and into Denethor. Even as she longed for what was lost, she was proud and strong. While she stood, so did Gondor. Lore lay safe in her embrace. Never would she be placed in the hands of others, as the Rohirrim were granted Aglarond, as a wizard claimed Angrenost, as the Corsairs had defiled Osgiliath, as lesser men slowly took over Pelargir like sea water invading a fresh spring. From the height of the Citadel down to the first circle and back up, Denethor walked, unmindful of the hour. In Arnor, there is nothing but the Lost. Was there ever such a fortress as this? Why could they not hold it? Or care to rebuild it? Another mate, vanished into mist. Two kingdoms there were yet one, as a husband and wife were joined. But the husband was quarrelsome and wastrel, ignoring his mate until he had a demand to make upon her. Even so, she wished for his return. And the sons arrive and partake of your beauty and your bounty, and then they vanish again. Why will they not remain?
Near dawn, Denethor once more stood upon the promontory, gazing east. He had walked the length of every wall, had trod every lane and passage in every circle, had listened to the stone until he knew her dirge as well as any written by the great poets. There, in sharp relief against the pale eastern sky, was the one mate that was never misplaced – Mordor. There was the root of all sorrow in the song. Save for it, this City would not be. Would the Númenóreans have lost Elenna if not for the corruption of Sauron? The cities of Gondor were founded by the Faithful fleeing the King's Men, Minas Tirith among them. Denethor watched the sun rise beyond the Ephel Dúath, allowing his eyes to be dazzled in the light. Through the palms of his hands resting flat upon the wall, he heard the voice of the stone, now muted. Only when the first bell rang did he return home.
There was a tapping sound. 'Denethor?' He came sharply awake, sitting up. The day was already well gone. Another tap, which he recognized as someone tapping on the frame of the screen. 'Friend? Are you all right?' Finduilas asked.
'Yes.' She peeked around the edge of the screen, worried. The sight of her made his loins warm and grow heavier, and Denethor was glad for the heavy blanket on the bed.
'I am sorry for waking you if you wish to sleep, but it is time for dinner and you do not usually lie abed so late.'
'I was up late, working,' he lied. 'But I am being a sluggard.' The memories of the stone made it difficult to concentrate. 'Let me dress and I will be out.' Finduilas smiled at that, worry gone, then gave his bare chest an admiring look before leaving. It took a few minutes for his erection to subside – her gaze had been most rousing – but soon he joined her at the dining table. She had already met with Borondir that morning and had accomplished a number of things.
'Friend, it looks as if Beruthiel is throwing a party on tuilérë,' Finduilas said, reading over what was probably an invitation.
'Brandir said something about that to me last week.'
Finduilas gave him a stern look. 'I would appreciate being told of anything she is planning.'
'We needn't go.'
'We most certainly will. This is a major festival, and her invitation is out before anyone else's.' She sighed. 'Unfortunately, this means I cannot offer festivities of my own. It will look like a contest.'
'Which you don't want because…?'
'Not yet,' was her reply, 'so we will need to go to this. There will be others that evening, so we will need to attend several to make Maiaberiel's look less important.'
Denethor finished his dinner quickly both because he was hungry and because he had wasted all the morning. This afternoon should have been for the archives, but one look at the number of messages awaiting him let him know he had to attend to business. First to be opened was a message from the Steward. The meeting for the third hour on the morrow was now set for the fifth. Denethor noted it and sorted through the rest. Near the bottom of the stack, stuck to the back of another regular report from Osgiliath, was something from Thorongil. At last! It was nine full days since he had sent his message to the Captain. Most was in regular script with one line of cipher at the very bottom.
I apologize for the delayed reply. I was on a patrol. What you propose is wise. There is no garrison that cannot use some additional soldiers. I advise leaving them for three months at a time in a location, then bringing them back to Minas Tirith for that long before a new assignment.
Uruks north soon. Within week. Warn them.
Denethor read the message twice, then replied:
I meet with the Steward tomorrow and shall present your counsel. I expect it will be approved at once, as he is already apprised of the details. The first group will be moved to Anórien, split between the regular garrison and Cair Andros.
Where east west? Numbers?
Denethor sealed the message and rang for Beregar. 'Hound, take this to the messenger stables and have it sent directly to Captain Thorongil immediately.' With a bob of his head, Beregar was gone. Denethor went quickly through the rest of the messages, finding nothing that would not keep. He left the house and headed down the mountain at a brisk pace. Much as he wished to pause along the way and listen to the tales of the City, he needed to be sure all was in order for a fast march two days hence. Beregar was surprised to see him on his own return from the sixth circle and fell into step next to him. Denethor said nothing of their errand. They left the City and went to the lower practice yards. There, Lieutenant Gethron was putting a group of the Lady's Guard through their paces. They were rough, but energy covered any gap in skill. Seeing Denethor, Gethron called a halt and hurried over.
'Lieutenant. I want you to select the fifty best bowmen from the Guard and have them provisioned and ready to move out swiftly on a two day march just past dawn the day after tomorrow.'
Gethron blinked once at the abruptness of the command. 'Yes, sir. Am I to be among them?'
Denethor weighed that for a moment, then shook his head. 'No, not this time. You are needed here to train them. They are still too green.'
'What are we to be used for, if I may ask, my lord?'
Denethor motioned at the men with his chin, 'Get them started up again, then I'll tell you.' They and Beregar stood near the practicing men while Denethor outlined his plans for the Guards. Once Gethron knew this was the wish of the Lady, he was agreeable.
'Why the haste, sir?' was his final question.
Denethor shrugged. 'I wish to see if they can be ready that quickly.' With a nod, he and Beregar returned to the Stewards House. Just before sundown, Beregar ushered in a messenger from Osgiliath. There was a single message from Thorongil, all in cipher:
Three hundred east of road.
Tell Anbar. Follow. I will be there.
The messenger was told to deliver it at once. At supper, Finduilas asked about the messenger and why Denethor had left that afternoon. 'Tower business' was all the answer he would give her. She gave him a stern look, but did not argue over the meal. When they retired to the front room, she tried to reopen the subject.
'You have been much about, friend.'
'You have been busy, as well. Should I not keep out from underfoot?'
'You have been gone all afternoon. Messengers are coming and going.'
Denethor refused to be baited. 'What of the bruises? Are they gone yet?'
Finduilas gave him a hard look. 'Do not think me so easily distracted.'
'I asked you a question. Will you not answer?' With a growl, she undid the top buttons of her blouse and turned her back to him, exposing a shoulder. The bruises were faint, more shadow than mark, and only two were left to be seen. Denethor ran a finger along her shoulder, making her shiver. Ciryon was emphatic that a wife should be touched every day, and not just a pat on the rump or an embrace. Tugging the edge of the collar, Denethor pulled the cloth to expose the other shoulder. Only one print remained. 'Soon. Three days at most.' He kissed his way along her shoulder and up her neck.
She turned to face him. 'I am not yet distracted.'
'Really?' he said quietly, letting the back of his fingers slide down her chest, brushing a nipple. She gasped and leaned into him. 'And now?'
'No.' Her voice had turned throaty. He leaned back against the sideboard. 'I think you are up to something, husband.'
'Mmm,' he answered before giving her a light kiss. He was already hardening.
A long kiss prevented him from answering right away. 'Are you not distracted?'
'Perhaps,' she murmured. He pulled her hips into his and began exploring her neck. 'Probably.' Denethor dropped his head and nuzzled her breast until he felt a nipple under the fabric. He took it in his mouth through the fabric and ran his tongue over it. She let out a deep moan, grinding her hips against his.
'Yes,' he assured her once he caught his own breath. They both forgot about messengers for the next quarter hour. When they parted for the night, flushed and roused, Finduilas paused at her door. Denethor waited, hoping she would ask him in.
'I am not distracted. Tomorrow, we will talk.' With a smile, she went into her room, firmly closing the door behind her. Denethor left to listen to the stone. He returned in the hour before dawn, head filled with song but less dazed than the previous morning. The voice was subsiding. Touching the stone did not consume him now.
He sat in his chair and dozed rather than lie down and risk falling fully asleep. Sounds of Finduilas stirring – a creak of the bed, a soft cough that went on longer than he liked, wash water poured in a basin, the door of the clothes press opening – made him neaten himself and go to the front room. Breakfast and Finduilas arrived at the same moment. She gave him a sharp look and only a perfunctory kiss on the cheek as greeting. There was nothing flirtatious in her behavior, unlike all the past days. Finduilas settled into her chair with a cup of tea and watched him. They sat in silence while he avoided her eyes and ate his breakfast. He rose to go to the baths this morning, wishing to be very presentable when he spoke to the Steward about the Guardsmen. Denethor had gathered fresh clothes and was almost to the outer door when she said, 'Silence does not distract me, either.'
Denethor stopped, hand on the handle. Why should she not know what Beregar does? She will learn it anyhow. Even so, he did not care for her prying. 'I have no answers myself, prince, until I meet with the Steward at the fifth bell. If you will be patient until then, you may know all.'
Finduilas smiled and joined him near the door, finally giving him a true kiss. 'Then I shall be patient, as you ask, Warden. But I will not be distracted.' They shared a longer kiss before he left. There were no kisses when she braided his hair, however, and he was left alone in his study afterwards. Denethor took Thorongil's first note and carefully trimmed the cipher from the bottom. The Steward would wish to see this and he would recognize the cipher, even if he could not read it. Next was crafting a letter to Anbar in one of the regular codes alerting him to the northward path of the Uruks, that they were being trailed by Osgiliath Rangers, that he himself would be at Cair Andros with fifty new bowmen near sundown two days hence, and to warn Marlong in Henneth Annûn. Thorongil was no doubt out in Ithilien tracking the Uruks, so there was no point sending another note to Osgiliath. Beregar was dispatched to take the coded letter to a messenger.
Denethor was waiting in the council chamber for the Steward's meeting well before the fifth bell. He wished to provide no reason to give offence. The final matter of the meeting concerned how footpads and cutpurses were to be punished. The stone quarry south of the City, where they were usually sent, was no longer productive due to flooding from a spring.
'They must do something with stone,' Hathol said, 'for that is the proper punishment – Let them touch not flesh, but break their hands and pride upon stone.'
'But we have no working quarry and there is not a skilled stonemason among them,' Ecthelion replied with a sigh. 'The guild will not wish to take such rubbish on as prentice, not when there are honest boys to be found.' The Steward looked over the statute with a frown. 'We will have to put them to something else.'
'Clearing fields?' Brandir suggested. He had greeted Denethor with a strong embrace and a wink that morning. 'There will be stones among the weeds and wood.'
'Not enough stone!' Hathol insisted.
'I would not trust them to do even simple stonework within the City,' Denethor said, looking over the Common Court's bailiff's report. It was a sorry lot; half-breeds, drunkards, whoresons, wanderers, and ruffians. 'I would send them to the outer garrisons, save that they would probably thieve from honest soldiers and run at the first sign of danger. They cannot be left in the City lest they return to their habits.'
'Clearing fields would keep their hands busy,' Ecthelion mused.
'What of roads?' Denethor looked up from the report. 'They are in disrepair between Calembel and Ethring because of rain since year start. It has the added advantage of getting them very far away from the City.'
The Steward nodded. 'They can be moved by ship, which will keep them from running off between here and there. Yes, that will do. Warden, if you will…'
'Draw up the decree? Immediately,' Denethor stood, gathering notes. 'It will be done today, and the Court may start the sentence tomorrow.' Ecthelion stood as well and nodded dismissal to the others. Denethor fished the trimmed note from Thorongil out the papers. With a small bow, he held it out to the Steward. 'My lord, I received Captain Thorongil's reply yesterday on the matter of the Guardsmen. He advises that I leave the Guardsmen longer at their station than I had intended, but otherwise finds the proposal sound.' Ecthelion perused the note slowly. Denethor pretended to be disinterested in the matter, saying, 'It may take a few days to arrange for the transport on the thieves.'
'Hmm? Oh, undoubtedly,' Ecthelion absently answered before returning the Thorongil's missive. 'Very well, see that these Guardsmen are sent out as Thorongil suggests.'
Denethor allowed no note of triumph to enter his voice. 'Yes, my Lord Steward. I will notify the Captain. I can make the transport down the river take both guardsmen and thieves. It would make for a safer trip.'
'Yes, do that.' With a brisk nod, Ecthelion left the room. Only then did Denethor allow himself a slow, satisfied smile. He hurried downstairs and behind the Tower to the scriveners' hall, to dictate the thieves' decree to a copyist. He also had a decree for ordering out the Guardsmen drawn up for good measure, copies of each to be prepared and delivered for Ecthelion's signature today. The afternoon was mostly gone by the time he returned to the Stewards House. Taking the stairs two at a time, Denethor strode to his room and pulled his pack out from under the bed. Everything was going according to plan. He would deliver the Guardsmen himself to Cair Andros, cross the river, and join the Rangers. He could almost feel the longbow in his hand. There was the Great Horn, here was Turgon's sword, the heavy leather jerkin was probably in the chest…
'What are you doing?'
Denethor jumped to his feet and spun around, hand reflexively going to his knife. Finduilas stood at the edge of the screen, arms crossed. She gestured at his pack with her chin. 'Are you going somewhere?'
'Why?' Her voice was quiet but there was no missing the dangerous glitter in her eyes.
'The Steward has approved the plan you and I spoke of a few weeks ago. Remember it? About using your guardsmen in the outer garrisons? It was finally approved. I take the first set of them to Cair Andros tomorrow.'
Finduilas walked over and slapped him, once, sharply on the cheek. He stood there, stupidly staring at her. "And the worst trespass that one so bound to another may do is to lie. Upon such a cruel point, the mightiest marriage will shatter." Denethor's mouth went dry as Finduilas recited Silmarien's words to him. With a contemptuous look, she turned and left. He sat on the bed, trying to gather his thoughts. That was from the Eighth Discourse, though from a later part than his studies. Does she know what I am about? Is it just this, the sudden departure? He rose and went to find her.
She was at her desk, writing something, and spared him a dark look when he entered. Shutting the door behind him, Denethor stood penitent before the desk. Finduilas finished the note and looked at him. 'Lie to your enemies and deceive your rivals as you desire, Warden. I care not about that. You will not speak so to me. Ever. Not as prince, not as Lady, not as counselor, and most certainly not as wife. Do you think me your fool?' He shook his head. 'You leave the house at night for meetings you do not admit to. You send urgent messages. You prepare not a bag for travel but gear for war. You learned something almost a fortnight past that has left you shaken. And when I ask, you treat me like a simpleton. If I wished to be made a fool by my husband, I would have chosen a fool so we would be well matched. If you have some secret of which you may not speak, then say simply that. Do not tell me a falsehood.'
Denethor hung his head. 'Please forgive me, Alquallë. I will tell you no falsehoods.'
'Then what is the truth?'
'Of my upset, I cannot yet speak for I do not understand it myself.' Denethor made himself meet her eyes until she nodded. 'As for the rest, it is true what I have said. The Steward and the Captain-General both agree to our plan, though they know not that we hope to gain knowledge from our soldiers. The messages were from Thorongil. There is a very large company of Uruks moving north in Ithilien. Orders have been sent and we set an ambush for them. The Guardsmen must be moved quickly to Cair Andros so they may be taken across the river. I take them there. It is a two day march and a night crossing.'
'You were going to set out to battle with no word to me?'
He sighed. 'Yes, with no word.'
Her look at him was terrible and he had to drop his gaze. 'I think you need to be without distractions. It would not do to have your mind drawn away from the upcoming battle. I think I, too, need respite. Thank you, Warden. That will be all.'
Finduilas's eyes held no kindness and he could see nothing in her. Denethor wished she would rage, or even strike him again, rather than treat him so coldly. Bowing, he retreated to his room to finish preparing his pack. There was no supper. Beregar brought him a tray of food without being asked, the young man keeping his eyes downcast as he set out the meal. The cat, at least, did not abandon him. She curled up next to him in bed and purred him to sleep.
He rose before dawn, dressing as quietly as he could, pulling on his ranging gear and covering all with a dark green, weather stained cloak. Lastly, he fished the mariner's lanyard out of the desk drawer, slipped it over his head and tucked it away beneath his shirt. Since the wedding, he had left it in the drawer. Denethor had taken their silver betrothal rings, wrapped them carefully with cloth so they would not be scratched, and strung them on the lanyard. The key to the palantír chamber he had put back in its case and kept that under the false bottom of the lowest drawer of the desk. The palantír itself remained safely stashed away in the wardrobe upstairs. He had not looked into it since Finduilas arrived in Minas Tirith.
When he walked out into the front room, Denethor pulled up short. Finduilas was waiting for him. She wore plain riding clothes and her outer shirt had her device embroidered upon it. Her blue mantle was over her arm.
'I will see you off. You and my soldiers.'
Denethor took her hands in his and touched his forehead to them, not presuming to claim any more than that. Beregar waited for them on the second floor and followed them through the empty streets. In the fifth circle, Finduilas slipped her hand into Denethor's and they walked the rest of the way like that. Fifty guardsmen were waiting for them in the mist at the foot of the mountain. They came to attention when they saw their Lady approach. Denethor excused himself for a moment, going to the armory to collect his longbow and quiver and then the buttery for his rations for a two day march.
'How long will you be gone?' she asked.
'I don't know. A fortnight, possibly.'
'Should I look for you?'
'Good bye, friend.' Finduilas touched his cheek, then kissed him firmly. Denethor called for the archers to form up, then started their swift march to Cair Andros.
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